Begging forgiveness on Yom Kippur: The sin of being a human being - opinion

Often overlooked is that the confessions made during Yom Kippur relate to sins that were committed against God, not against our fellow man.

 DECORATING A sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur, on Wednesday night, for the upcoming festival of Sukkot: Even amid the weariness from the fast, there is the anticipation of getting the building of the sukkah underway (photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
DECORATING A sukkah at the end of Yom Kippur, on Wednesday night, for the upcoming festival of Sukkot: Even amid the weariness from the fast, there is the anticipation of getting the building of the sukkah underway
(photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

One would be expected to feel that the days following Yom Kippur would be somewhat anticlimactic. 

After all, we complete 10 days of personal introspection and a long day of prayer, all designed to have our name entered and sealed on the credit side of the Book of Life. I can’t help but wonder how many of us actually feel relief and gratitude at the end of Yom Kippur. 

Oh, most certainly there is weariness from the fast, anticipation of getting the building of the sukkah underway, and amusement over the yearly argument as to when the shofar should be blown. It may not be incorrect to conclude that our association with the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur may be taken for granted.

Consider, for example, that more than a few of the sins we confessed to during the vidui segments throughout the day of Yom Kippur are related to verbal communication. We express contrition for the use of improper “utterance of the lips,” are remorseful that we committed forbidden actions “through speech,” and admit to having not been entirely innocent of “insincere confession,” to name a few. 

And as part of the repentance process, we, individually, ask forgiveness for these transgressions, and fervently hope that our supplications have been accepted by the time the Day of Atonement culminates with the joyous blast of the shofar.

Often overlooked, though, is that the confessions made during Yom Kippur relate to sins that were committed against God, not against our fellow man. The latter are resolved differently, and only after peace has been made between the two parties. 

THE JEWISH CALENDAR year that ended last week, 5780, featured unforgivable errors  that will take the country years to recover from.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE JEWISH CALENDAR year that ended last week, 5780, featured unforgivable errors that will take the country years to recover from. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

If, for example, Avi commits an infraction of one sort or another against Yossi, an apology must be made and accepted before the grievance can be forgiven, which, not infrequently, requires the intervention of a civil or rabbinical court. 

Such human endeavors and mutual compromises are not included in the structure of the Yom Kippur atonement; while forgiveness and peace between two individuals can be achieved with something as simple as a handshake and a shot of whiskey, heavenly forgiveness is somewhat more internal and complicated.

The irony is that no sooner are we forgiven, presumably, for our communications-related transgressions against God then the demerits once again start adding up. When else do we communicate with God except during the act of prayer, and most often within the confines of a shul. And here is where Satan’s temptations are hard to ignore.

I’d be less than honest if I claimed that during the everyday morning, afternoon and evening services I am entirely attentive to prayer and utter nothing but what is part of the established text for the type of service I am a regular part of.

On the contrary, I am, admittedly, somewhat less than entirely focused and devoted during the daily services; in the morning I kibitz a bit with my fellow “worshipers,” in the afternoon my thoughts stray to what was left undone during the day, and in the evening I exchange news of what’s going on in the neighborhood with anyone who happens to be sitting next to me. 

A day doesn’t go by, in other words, in which I fail to add to the list of no-no’s for which I’ll be begging forgiveness come the following Yom Kippur.

While this undisciplined behavior is by no means something to gloat over or brag about, I’m not about to hang my head in shame over the fact that I blatantly ignore the large “Speaking is forbidden during prayer” sign that hangs prominently on the wall not from where I sit. 

I’m nothing if not discrete during these lapses, am very infrequently, if ever, disruptive (and usually only when a Red Sox fan is sitting close by), and rarely lose sight of where the service is at any specific moment. 

While I would not call the ability to switch between prayer and chatter multi-tasking, I would argue that this sort of behavior is in the DNA of many if not all FFBs (Frum from Birth) and is a commonplace characteristic that is found in most Modern Orthodox shuls throughout the world. 

So, while rabbis and gabbais do their best to enforce decorum during davening, they realize, with a wistful sigh, that human nature is not easy to change.

My late father-in-law put this seemingly contradictory behavior into some sort of perspective. Conservative and Reform synagogues, he noted, are viewed as edifices of formality and respect, not very different from libraries and museums. Participation there is more periodic than regular, and attendees have a less flexible mindset about how to act and adopt a more restrictive set of parameters for defining appropriate behavior.

Orthodox shuls, on the other hand, are very much viewed by regulars as an extension of the home. It represents, if anything, a comfort zone for those who routinely attend the services.

God, my father-in-law believed, is smiling when he sees that His worshipers view prayer not as a process of predefined steps but, rather, as part of human nature. And an off-topic whisper or two will cause no irreparable harm.

[Sidebar joke: Moshe, while on a business trip, arranged to spend Shabbat with a religious family that somebody in the community told him to contact. During the Friday evening and Shabbat morning services he was more than a little surprised by how quiet the shul was and how attentive the participants were to the service, which was quite unlike what he was accustomed to. 

At the end of the Shabbat morning service, he approached the rabbi and commended him on how respectful everyone was. With a sigh, the rabbi shook his head and suggested that Moshe save his congratulations for some other time; there was, he explained, a major brogus (argument) going on in the shul and no one was talking to each other. 

Oh, he added, how I miss the camaraderie that made praying here so pleasant, and long for the days when every few minutes I had to give a clop (bang with a hand) and admonish everyone to “sha.”

Well, since these words are being scribbled after Yom Kippur, I can safely assume that God, again, thankfully forgave me for the sins I committed as a result of speaking at inappropriate times. When balanced against many of the other commandments, however, these transgressions are less serious than, let’s say, intentionally cheating someone, acting impudently or arrogantly, or using milk as an ingredient for meatloaf. 

And as I do every year, I will make every effort to change and improve my behavior in a shul. I merely have to stay focused on the prayer book in front of me and remain aware that God is watching and listening.

And avoid sitting next to some damn Red Sox fan.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.